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Frederic Leighton Artist Biography

Frederic Leighton's draughtsmanship was sublime, his compositions were always immaculate and his colouring very rich. He achieved great success in his lifetime, perhaps only matched by his contemporary John Everett Millais. Frederic Leighton was born in 1830 in Scarborough in the north of England, and travelled widely from an early age. He enrolled in the Berlin School of Art in his early teens, having lied about his age. The following year he enrolled in an Art Academy in Florence. The Nazarenes and Italian Renaissance painters were considerable early influences.

By 1853, Frederic Leighton was already developing a distinctive style with his portrait 'Isabel Laing'. In 1855, he exhibited his first painting, 'Cimabue finding Giotto in the Fields of Florence' to the Royal Academy Exhibition, where it was a sensation, creating his reputation as an artist overnight. This vast painting, done in Rome was the product of two year’s work. The subject concerns Cimabue's Rucellai Madonna being taken in procession from the painter's house to a large church in 13th century Florence. It divided audiences into those who viewed it as the zenith of Pre-Raphaelite painting and those who hated the painting, as well as this burgeoning movement. Between 1855 and 1859, Frederic Leighton was based in Paris. The period marks the beginning of a transition in his work, from the exact draughtsmanship and historical detail of the Nazarenes to a broader synthesis of influences, embracing the painterly effects of Venetian art, the realistic landscapes of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Charles-François Daubigny and the classical subject-matter of Thomas Couture's followers.

He moved to London in 1859. Frederic Leighton exhibited at the Royal Academy as an associate member in 1865 with 'Mother and Child (Cherries)'. As in much of his work there is a certain degree of sentimentality in this painting but he took care not to let this overwhelm the piece.

He was enthralled by classical themes and this can be seen most impressively in 'Hercules wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis' (1871) for example. By 1878, Frederic Leighton became President of the Royal Academy and was made a baronet in 1886. In 1893, he produced one of his most striking paintings in 'Flaming June'. Frederic Leighton died exhausted by his battle with heart disease and the demands of his public role as President of the Royal Academy. It is significant that he left no school of pupils to continue a tradition that itself was almost exhausted.

"If Leighton looked back to classical prototypes, he did so through the eyes of a Victorian aesthete, whose primary concern was to please the eye and elevate the imagination of his audience, not to belabour them with the perfection of Greek form." Richard Ormond.

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